August 21, 2017

itsu – Building on firm foundations

istu Strand (Jeff Russell Photography)
istu Strand (Jeff Russell Photography)

With its popularity continuing to increase, Asian cuisine specialist itsu has been ramping up its expansion plans to keep up with demand. Such rapid growth requires a strong internal restaurant development team and FMCG recently caught up with the company’s Head of Construction, Michael Leith, and its Head of Design, Paul Andrews, to see how the itsu business is managing its burgeoning rollout programme.

“We currently have over 60 sites and as we’ve gradually increased our expansion rate in recent years we’ve been developing the in-house team accordingly to give us the time we need to really focus on further building our portfolio,” explains Mr Leith. “We are bolstering the design team, the

project management team and the maintenance team to pave the way for the future growth we’re aiming for.

“The year before last we opened eight new restaurants, last year it was 12, and we’re on course to add another 15 this year. We’re aiming to have a presence in all of the major regional cities before looking to move into the smaller towns, so it’s essential that we have the skills and the expertise in place to support this level of expansion.”

With such a rapid growth programme itsu has benefited from having a recognisable and distinctive design across its restaurants. “We’re mainly focusing on large corner locations across two to three floors. Generally, we look at sites within the 2,500 to 3,000 sq ft range with a big ‘wow’ factor, ideally with a great view, in order to really stamp our mark on

the areas into which we’re expanding,” adds Mr Andrews. “We’re well known in London but we really want to bring the whole culture of itsu to the regions.

itsu Strand (Jeff Russell Photography)
itsu Strand (Jeff Russell Photography)

“The brand was developed in London where competition is obviously fierce, which ensured that the design was of a very high standard. The concept simply wouldn’t have survived otherwise. If you can make it in London you can make it anywhere. This gave us the confidence to expand beyond the capital into other towns and cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Leeds. We’ve got an extremely strong brand image that ticks all the right boxes, with great food to match.”

To maximise its growth potential itsu’s Property Director has been constantly on the look-out for new sites, ensuring a strong pipeline of locations for both the remainder of the year and into 2017.

“The location is key, and providing the size is correct we will find a way to make the site work, whether the building be old or new,” says Mr Leith. “We will transform the building into what we require even if it takes a great deal of work. We’re more than prepared to remove the entire structure if necessary. We’re very precious about what the building should look like in the end and we’ll push things to the absolute limit to get the precise image we want. This is only possible because of the great links we have built up with our contractors and sub-contractors. We therefore have really strong teams, both externally and internally, that are able to get the job done to a really high quality and at a price that is affordable.

Westfield, Shepherds Bush (Jeff Russell Photography)
Westfield, Shepherds Bush (Jeff Russell Photography)

“Real mutual respect has been developed between all the elements of our supply chain which has led to excellent working relationships. Everyone knows the standards we expect and are fully onboard in delivering them. Once we have secured the site we can typically expect to receive the keys to the completed restaurant within six to eight weeks. This is a very fast turnaround but our dedicated partners are prepared to work longer shifts if required to get the work done.

“It’s all about building relationships because everything we do pushes boundaries. It’s all hard, it’s all fast, and there’s no time to stop and take a breath, but as long as we’re surrounded by the right people we’ll be able to maintain our expansion rate, if not make it go faster.”

The ongoing expansion of the restaurant portfolio is driving up the experience levels within itsu’s team, enabling it to forge ahead with its future plans, as Mr Andrews highlights: “With the completion of each new restaurant things have become that bit easier and we’ve spent the past 18 months refining the entire process to smooth out all the creases in preparation for the regional roll-out. We’ve just gone into Manchester and Leeds, and we’re soon to be onsite in Nottingham and Bristol, so we’re working our way around the country. In addition, we are also ramping up the refurbishment programme of our London stores.

“Within the next 12 months we’ll have definitely achieved 15 new sites as we push towards the 100-restaurant mark, in conjunction with the refurbs that we’re carrying out. These are very exciting times and looking even further ahead there’s the potential for sites outside of the UK.”

itsu’s expansion shows no sign of abating and it’s clear that the company is doing its utmost to put all the necessary elements in place to ensure the restaurant rollout continues in the months and years ahead.